Nature as both Metaphor and Model for Our Actions

J.D. Nasaw '08, 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

Nature rules supreme for Henry David Thoreau. It is the highest point from which we can seek to change society. Thoreau uses the purity and harmony of nature as both a metaphor and a model for our actions. In "The Last Days of John Brown," he presents nature as connected to society but simultaneously above it.

For my own part, I commonly attend more to nature than to man, but any affecting human event may blind our eyes to natural objects. I was so absorbed in him as to be surprised whenever I detected the routine of the natural world surviving still, or met persons going about their affairs indifferent. It appeared strange to me that the little dipper should be still diving quietly in the river, as of yore; and it suggested that this bird might continue to dive here when Concord should be more. [p.1]

In "Slavery in Massachusetts," Thoreau uses Nature as a scale of judgment on how to live.

"But it chanced the other day that I scented a white water-lily, and a season I had waited for had arrived. It is the emblem of purity . . .What confirmation of our hopes in the fragrance of this flower!... If Nature can compound this fragrance still annually, I shall believe her still young and full of vigor, her integrity and genius unimpaired, and that there is virtue even in man, too, who is fitted to perceive and love it. It reminds me that Nature has been partner to no Missouri Compromise. I scent no compromise in the fragrance of the water-lily . . . So behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere. . . . [pp. 8-9]


Besides the fact that Thoreau feels a deep connection with nature, why does he use nature literally and metaphorically in comparison to human society and government? What is its effect as a literary technique?

Thoreau often capitalizes words such as in "Civil Disobedience" when he says, "the lawyer's truth is not Truth, but consistency, or a consistent expediency" (p. 16). Why does he capitalize the word "Nature" in the section from "Slavery in Massachusetts" but not in "The Last Days of John Brown?" Do they represent the same thing?

In the second passage, Thoreau says to "behave that the odor of your actions may enhance the general sweetness of the atmosphere." What is the effect of prescribing action metaphorically rather than literally? How would it be different if he had been for forceful rather than poetic?

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Last modified 22 March 2005